Friday, August 10

George Steiner on Music (part 1)

Steiner's Errata is one of the most profound books I've ever read. I had read it back in 2007, but I decided it was worth a second reading. 
It is his thoughts on music (chapter 6) that I would like to discuss; or, to be more precise, to copy them in my diary. For I find in them depth and precision that one seldom finds in musicological analyses. 
Steiner speaks about the relation between music and language. Or, rather, the relation between the language of music and the language of language. The latter points towards the "thereness" of the former, yet "language, in regards to music, 'messes about'". Music is beyond language, a musical score is described as a "meta-language" which can convey, for the person trained, something peripheral about music: yet the essence of music remains unapproachable, and "almost everything said about musical compositions by critics, by poets or writers of fiction, by the ordinary listener and music-lover is verbiage". "In the face of music, the wonders of language are also its frustrations". 
Word imitates music: "it knows rhythm, cadence, sonorities, echo-effects, changes of 'key', thematic variations". And yet, there is, Steiner believes, a primary rivalry between word and music. "In every serious Lied, cantata, chorale or operatic  music-speech, the tension, the agonistic tug-of-war are palpable. The music aims, consciously or not, to draw back  into its own totality, to drain of translatable lexical-grammatical sense, the text. It seek to vocalize completely  the phonetics, the signifying syllables of language. Words are to be melted into pure vocalises."
Is there a way to reconcile these two forces? The answer is yes, and the "means" to achieve this is, for Steiner, human voice when it sings. "Song is simultaneously the most carnal and spiritual of realities". 

As I transfer Steiner's thoughts into my diary, I cannot help but wonder what's the purpose of jotting down my own musical impressions. Do/Can I say anything about music per se? I think the answer can only be in the negative - perhaps with some chinks of light. My only consolation is that my musical impressions try to say something, not about music but about me: the effort is not to describe a musical work that I love, but to try and see myself reflected in it. In some other place, Steiner says that the definition of a "classic" is that it "reads you" (rather than you reading it). This can very well be applied to music...
But we shall continue.

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